It Came From The Wastebasket #01: Is This An Insectivore?

Most of the wastebasket taxa featured this month are completely extinct and known only from fossils, but to start things off let’s take a look at a major example of how even groups with living members could have their classification muddled up for centuries.

The name Insectivora first came into use in the early 1820s, and was used to refer to various “primitive-looking” small insect-eating mammals, with modern shrews, moles, hedgehogs, tenrecs, and golden moles as the original core members.

An illustration showing the animals that originally made up "Insectivora". From left to right it pictures a shrew, a tenrec, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a mole and a golden mole on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Insectivora".

Then over the next few decades solenodons, treeshrews, sengis, and colugos all got lumped in with them too.

By the early 20th century insectivorans were considered to represent the “primitive” ancestral stock that all other placental mammals had ultimately descended from, and any vaguely similar fossil species also got dumped under the label. Extinct groups like leptictids, cimolestans, adapisoriculids, and apatemyids all went into the increasingly bloated Insectivora, too, making the situation even more of a wastebasket as time went on.

An illustration showing the animals that made up the expanded historical version of "Insectivora". From left to right it pictures a leptictidan, a shrew, a tenrec, a hedgehog, and a sengi on the top row, an apatemyid, a mole, a golden mole, and a solenodon in the middle row, and a cimolestan, a colugo, and a treeshrew on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "…Insectivora?", styled like a typewritten label that has been stuck over the previous image's text.

The problem was that the only characteristics that really united these various animals were very generic “early placental mammal” traits – small body size, five clawed digits on the hands and feet, relatively unspecialized teeth, and mostly-insectivorous diets – and attempts at making sense of their evolutionary relationships were increasingly convoluted.

An image of a diagram from a 1967 academic paper, showing a complicated attempt to figure out the evolutionary relationships of "insectivores", with many different group names linked by arrows. For comparison next to it is the "Pepe Silvia" conspiracy wall meme.
…They’re the same image.

(Image sources: &

The rise of cladistic methods from the 1970s onwards resulted in a lot of “insectivores” finally being recognized as unrelated to each other, removing them from the group and paring things back down closer to the name’s original definition. The idea that insectivorans were ancestral to all other placentals was abandoned, instead reclassifying them as being related to carnivorans, and the remaining members were recognized as just retaining a superficially “primitive” mammalian body plan.

Just shrews, moles, hedgehogs, solenodons, tenrecs, and golden moles were left, and to disassociate from the massive mess that had been Insectivora this version of the group was instead now called Lipotyphla.

An illustration showing the animals that made up "Lipotyphla". From left to right it pictures a solenodon, a tenrec, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a shrew, a mole, and a golden mole on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Lipotylpha", styled like an embossed label-maker sticker that has been stuck over the previous images' text.

But there were still no unique anatomical links between the remaining lipotyphlans. And then once genetic methods became available in the late 1990s, something unexpected happened.

Studies began to suggest that tenrecs and golden moles were actually part of a completely different lineage of placental mammals, the newly-recognized afrotheres, with their closest relatives being sengis and aardvarks. Meanwhile the rest of the lipotyphlans were laurasiatheres, closely related to bats, ungulates, and carnivorans.

Lipotyphla was suddenly split in half. For a while it was unclear if even the remaining shrew-mole-hedgehog-solenodon group was still valid – hedgehogs’ relationships were especially unstable in some studies – but by the mid-2000s things began to settle down into their current state.

Finally, after almost 200 years of confusion, the insectivore wastebasket has (hopefully) now been cleaned up. The remaining “true lipotyphlans” do seem to all be part of a single lineage, united by their genetics rather than by anatomical features, and are now known as Eulipotyphla.

A few fossil groups like nyctitheriids and amphilemurids are generally also still included, but since this classification is based just on their anatomy it isn’t entirely certain. The only exception to this are the nesophontids, which went extinct recently enough that we’ve actually recovered ancient DNA from them and confirmed they were eulipotyphlans closely related to solenodons.

An illustration showing the animals that now make up Euipotyphla. From left to right it pictures a solenodon, and a hedgehog on the top row, and a shrew, a mole, and an amphilemurid on the bottom row. Text at top of the the image reads "Eulipotylpha", with the letters "E" and "U" hastily scribbled onto the front of the previous image's text.

And a bonus image with species IDs:

Continue reading “It Came From The Wastebasket #01: Is This An Insectivore?”


Cimolestans were one of the major mammal lineages that survived through the K-Pg mass extinction 66 million years ago. Closely related to early placentals, they had a burst of diversification during the first half of the Cenozoic and rapidly evolved into a wide range of specialized forms – some uniquely weird, and others convergently resembling more familiar modern animals like squirrels, bears, ground sloths, and hippos.

And one group known as the pantolestids were incredibly otter-like.

(Because synapsids love them some lutrinization.)

Palaeosinopa didelphoides here lived during the mid-Eocene, about 52 million years ago, in what is now the Mountain West region of the USA. It was similar in size to a small otter, about 1m long (3’3″), and had a streamlined body with a well-muscled neck, short powerful forelimbs, slightly longer hindlimbs, and a very long tail.

Inhabiting a subtropical lake ecosystem, it probably swam using both hindlimb paddling and otter-like tail undulations. Its strong jaws and teeth suggest it was specialized for crunching hard shellfish prey, but so far preserved gut contents have only shown fish bones and scales. Fairly large claws indicate it was also able to dig out burrows similarly to modern otters and beavers.

Although pantolestids were never particularly common animals they were quite widespread, expanding their range from their evolutionary origins in North America across to Europe and eventually into Asia. A cooling and drying climate at the end of the Eocene seems to have driven most of the group into extinction alongside all their other cimolestan relatives – but a few of the Asian species clung on slightly longer as the very last of their kind, with the last known fossils dating to about 28 million years ago in the early Oligocene.


In the early Cenozoic mammals were rapidly diversifying and evolving. And while it was the placental mammals that would end up being the most successful across much of the world, they weren’t the first mammal lineage to take advantage of all the ecological niches left vacant in the wake of the end-Cretaceous mass extinction.

The cimolestans were a group of non-placental eutherians – mammals closer related to modern placentals than to marsupials – that very quickly evolved into a wide range of niches during the Paleocene and Eocene, becoming some of the largest mammals of their time and producing forms as varied as squirrel-like, otter-like, ground sloth-like, and hippo-like.

But some of the weirdest of them all were the taeniodonts. Originating back in the late Cretaceous, these herbivorous cimolestans were characterized by short blunt snouts with large front teeth, and limbs with long claws.

Stylinodon mirus here was one of the largest taeniodonts, standing around 70cm tall at the shoulder (2’4″), and was also one of the last of its kind, living during the mid-Eocene about 50-40 million years ago in western North America.

It took the specializations of its lineage to the extreme, with a odd-looking boxy skull with enormous chisel-like ever-growing front teeth similar to those of a rodent – but derived from its canine teeth rather than its incisors.

Stylinodon skull | photograph by Yinan Chen | CC0

Its powerful front limbs and large claws were clearly specialized for digging, and for a long time it was thought to be obvious what its diet was – clearly it must have been unearthing roots and tubers from underground, right?

However, closer looks at its teeth raise a problem with that interpretation. That sort of food source should have left numerous telltale marks on the chewing surfaces of its teeth, scratches and gouges and abrasions from dirt and grit mixed in with the roots being eaten.

Yet Stylinodon barely shows any of those wear marks, suggesting that it rarely actually ate those food items. Its tooth surfaces were instead worn very smooth, indicating that it was eating something particularly tough that was constantly “polishing” them as it chewed — but what exactly that food source was is still unknown.

It may also have used its forelimbs to help pull down branches down towards its mouth, stripping off leaves and bark similar to ground sloths, chalicotheres, and therizinosaurs – but it probably did mostly use those big claws to actually dig, just perhaps mainly to construct large burrows rather than to find food.

Month of Mesozoic Mammals #29: Rooting Around


First appearing in the Late Cretaceous, a widespread and diverse group of mammals known as cimolestans were once thought to be early members of placental groups like pangolins and carnivorans. But more recent studies have shown them to be part of a different branch of the eutherian family tree altogether, more like cousins to the earliest placentals and leaving no living descendants.

However, they did make it through the end-Cretaceous mass extinction and were quite successful during the early Cenozoic, evolving into forms ranging from giant herbivores to fanged squirrel-like climbers to otter-like swimmers, with the latter surviving until about 33 million years ago.

One group of North American cimolestans, the taeniodonts, were specialized for digging up tough roots and tubers, with large claws, strong blunt jaws, and big front teeth that became ever-growing in some species.

Schowalteria was the earliest known member of this group, living during the Late Cretaceous of Canada (70-66 mya). Only represented by partial skull material, its full size is unknown – some estimates put it at a similar size to giants like Repenomamus, but it was likely closer to half that size at around 50cm in length (1′8″). Still one of the larger Mesozoic mammals around, but not nearly as big as some of the Cenozoic taeniodonts would later become.